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Pope backs Palestinian statehood on politically-charged trip

Posted: 05-13-09 04:05 PM

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On his trip to the Middle East, Pope Benedict XVI visited Bethlehem, where he met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The pope used the symbolism of his first official visit to what Christians consider to be the birthplace of Jesus to endorse the creation of a Palestinian state.

Mary Boys, a professor of theology at the Union Theological Seminary, discusses the pope’s relations with Jews and Muslims and how his trip is being perceived on all sides.

Read blogger reactions to the pope’s trip and his statements below. 

The Pope conducted mass in Manger Square, where he gave his condolences to the suffering people living in Gaza. Blogger “Lionel” describes attending the papal mass and the mood in the region: 

Yesterday’s papal Mass at the Kidron valley was something [...] of a letdown. Security was super tight. There was a tension in the air. The pope had just been criticised for his yad Vashem speech and the sheikh had hijacked the conference that made the pope walk out. [..] The crowd was noticeably very small — mainly foreign pilgrims and religious nuns. Even the number of priests were very limited…it was pretty subdued. 

I left for Bethlehem at 8pm after the Mass ended. Stayed overnight but got up real early to go to Manger Square in front of the Basilica of the Nativity for the 2nd papal Mass this morning.  Now here the Mass was packed packed packed!!!! And we had Catholics from Gaza and other refugee camps like Jenin, Zebibde and even Taybe and other West Bank districts closed by Israeli security. And many women wore traditional bedoiun costumes. It was like a carnival — the combined choir was leading in songs and chanting “Benedetto! benvenuto!” (Benedict! Welcome!) It was a stark contrast from yesterday’s sombre (one nun said it was like a funeral) mood. Here in Bethlehem, people were standing on chairs, singing, waving flags, interrupting the homily with shouts and claps.

After Mass the pope went to greet the Christians from Gaza — everything broke loose — a security nightmare. All the refugees rushed to plead with the pope for help and the security had to surround the pope to protect him and whisk him off quickly. Palestinian security was pretty tough as well. Snipers on every rooftop in Manger Square.

Blogger Tom Hein in Israel writes about the widespread preparation prior to the pope’s visit: 

One of big events in the news of Israel is the arrival of the Pope in Jerusalem. All week long I have been seeing preparations in the old city for his arrival. For example, down in the Kidron Valley a gigantic platform stage was erected, seating set up in cordoned sections interspersed with imported olive trees and tons of gravel so that people in robes don’t have to walk on the dirty grimy floor of the Kidron Valley. Actually they’ve cleaned up everything around the city. One of our tour guides said that the city is not usually this clean, but they are giving it the spit and shine for the Pope. 

Since the pope is arriving there are thousands of soldiers lining the streets around the old city, a blimp bouncing around in the sky overhead, and the roads are blocked with buses parked sideways across the width of the roadways. I guess that this is to stop someone from driving up in a car or truck with a bomb or trying to ram the popes automobile. It is a really massive operation, hard to describe how many soldiers I’ve talked to today as I’ve gone here and there. I went up high on one precipice to see the view, and I had a soldier follow and check for bombs in the flower pots! When he didn’t find any bombs he visited with me a bit which was fine. I respect and appreciate soldiers, and I just took it that he was doing his duty to keep an eye on me. People are not allowed to drive up here to the old city and there are certain roadways blocked to pedestrian traffic as well. Some people are upset because they have to take an alternative route around anywhere the pope is going. I understand why it’s necessary. 

User “Max” comments on a Catholic blog about his experience as a Christian in Bethlehem: 

I am a Christian Palestinian from Bethlehem [...] I lived most of my life here, got baptized and confirmed here, went to Catholic schools etc. I have to say that blanket hatred of other religions does not resemble anything that I ever learned about Christianity. Muslims and Christians have been living peacefully together in Bethlehem for centuries now. Throughout my life Muslims here have been my good neighbors, classmates, friends, work colleagues and most of all fellow Palestinians with whom we have shared the experience of 42 years of a brutal Israeli military occupation of our city. All we want is to simply be free. 

Like many Christian Palestinians I am also sadly making plans to emigrate from Palestine. I am doing so not because of my Muslim neighbors but because it is extremely demoralizing to live in a city that is besieged by Israeli walls and is constantly shrinking as Israel confiscates more and more of our privately owned lands to build Israeli settlements. Our beautiful city is starting to resemble a fenced in ghetto in which we have to maneuver Israeli army checkpoints on a daily bases with a regular dose of harassment and intimidation.  It would be a remarkable gesture for the pope to visit Gaza. If he does so I hope, as a Christian, that he would do this not only as an "expression of solidarity with the Christian community", but with all Palestinians in Gaza who are still suffering from the aftermath of a barbaric attack that cannot be justified. 

Also, read editorial consultant Peter Eisner’s analysis of the pope’s visit: Israel parses pope's words at Holocaust memorial.

While visiting Bethlehem, Pope Benedict XVI used the symbolism of his first official visit to what Christians consider to be the birthplace of Jesus to endorse the creation of a Palestinian state. Mary Boys of the Union Theological Seminary discusses the pope's relations with Jews and Muslims and how his trip is being perceived on all sides.

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